The restaurant A Taverna d’ ‘e Zoccole has a Neapolitan name, but the translation is intuitive in Italian: la taverna delle zoccole, or “the tavern of the whores.” In other words, a disreputable inn (locanda di malaffare).
It’s certainly blunt, and maybe even too explicit for some, but we actually find it kind of brilliant. The restaurant’s name offers a semantic connection to the history of the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter), the neighborhood where it’s located.
Until not too long ago, the area was considered a den of sin, with high rates of prostitution and crime. It was a reputation that dated back to the end of the 16th century, when the quarter was built to house Spanish soldiers, who were brought over to subdue the local Neapolitan population (the city was under the rule of the Monarchy of Spain at the time).
With the soldiers’ arrival came an influx of prostitutes, many of whom attracted their clients not only with their physical attributes and by clicking the heels of their clogs (called zoccoli in Italian, the source of the word zoccola) but also by cooking delicious dishes, whose smell infused the whole street.
Likewise, pleasant aromas waft out of the kitchen at A Taverna d’ ‘e Zoccole, a newly opened seafood restaurant run by 64-year-old Aldo Civale, a retired primary school teacher, with his siblings Attilio, 55, and Milena, 45, all of whom have experience in restaurants. In 2005, the siblings opened Le Stalle del Generale, a restaurant in Portici, a town slightly south of Naples and home to the Bourbons’ royal palace. “Our focus was a cuisine of emotion,” Aldo says. “Then in 2010 we closed ‘the stables’ and opened another restaurant, La Vineria senza Cucina, again in Portici.”
But the trio dreamed of opening a new restaurant in Naples’ city center, eventually taking over their current space in the Spanish Quarter in September 2020 – a time when it looked like the pandemic might end sooner rather than later. Yet the second wave hit not long after, and A Taverna d’ ‘e Zoccole – so-named in a nod to the quarter’s history – never had a chance to get off the ground. The restaurant finally opened on June 1, 2021.
The protagonist of the menu is fish; there are things here that you really can’t find at any other restaurant in town, starting with the shot of octopus broth (tentacle included) that every customer is greeted with when they sit down. A restorative soup that used to provide warmth on cold winter evenings, this dish is a piece of Neapolitan history.
“My menu is based only on what the sea gives us; I go every morning to Torre del Greco, one of the largest fish markets in Campania, and I buy the freshest fish, directly from the boat,” Aldo tells us. “Today I recommend staying with the octopus, tasting the seared octopus tentacle on the grill, and then I would continue with fried anchovies and squid.”
This, adds Attilio, “is the real guarantee of freshness. The menu is all based on wild sea fish – nothing farmed – and therefore it is not possible to make leftovers and keep them in the fridge. So everything must be consumed on the same day.”
“My menu is based only on what the sea gives us; I go every morning to Torre del Greco, one of the largest fish markets in Campania, and I buy the freshest fish, directly from the boat.”
This fresh seafood is expertly prepared by two experienced chefs: Antonio Falanga and Patrizia Bonetti, the latter specializing in the restaurant’s wonderful appetizers.
The menu is short, just the way we like it. There are only three first courses that are almost always available: artisanal vermicelloni with crab, linguine with mussels and lemons, and a delightful dish of pasta and beans with mussels.
“The main courses obviously depend on the catch of the day, which is usually done on the grill,” Aldo tells us.
The restaurant inside is somewhat small, no more than 10 tables, but very attractive, with some of the walls consisting of tuff, an ancient stone commonly found in Naples. Outside, a large platform holds another dozen tables – it’s a pleasant place to sit, even on sultry summer days, because you can almost always hear (and feel) the wind coming from the sea in the alleys of the Spanish Quarter.
The clientele is mixed: There are managers who work in the nearby financial district, employees on their lunch break and the first returning tourists.
The intersection where it sits – of Vico Figurelle a Montecalvario and Vico Lungo Gelso – features copper and brass lamps by Riccardo Dalisi, one of the greatest Neapolitan designers. You can hear the voices of the neighborhood, the people walking around – a delightful atmosphere.
In fact, Vico Lungo Gelso is now essentially one large outdoor dining area. In the aftermath of Covid, the municipality allowed all restaurants to install tables outside. It’s one more step in the transformation of the Spanish Quarter, which has been slowly shedding its bad reputation over the last 20 years. Now it’s known as a small treasure trove of gastronomy and art, not unlike Montmartre in Paris.
And again, the same smell of cooking dishes spreads through the alleyways, only now it’s more reputable professionals who are preparing them.